WASHINGTON — Top public health officials appointed to President-elect Joe Biden's coronavirus advisory board raised concerns Sunday that the delay in an official presidential transition has hampered their ability to communicate with their federal counterparts as cases surge nationwide.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a member of Biden’s advisory panel, told Fox News Sunday that it was "critical" for both sides to exchange information as Biden prepares to assume the presidency on Jan. 20.
The General Services Administration, the federal agency tasked with freeing funding and secure office space for a presidential transition, has so far refused to sign off on the official transition as President Donald Trump continues to pursue long-shot legal battles in a handful of battleground states. Federal judges in Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania have dismissed several of the lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign.
"It’s very important for the transition to be able to talk to the existing administration and the reason is there are thousands and thousands of career civil servants and political appointees who’ve been working very hard on this pandemic for many months now. They have plans that are in process. They have data they’ve collected that the public hasn’t always had access to," Murthy said. "These dialogues are critical, you want to get them started as soon as possible."
Biden's newly tapped chief of staff, Ron Klain, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that it was critical for Biden's transition team to communicate with current federal health officials as the nation draws closer to approving a viable vaccine for widespread distribution. Drugmaker Pfizer last week announced it had developed a vaccine candidate that in trials was found to be 90% effective in preventing the virus.
"There are people at [the Department of Health and Human Services] making plans to implement that vaccine. Our experts need to talk to those people as soon as possible so nothing drops in this change of power we're going to have on January 20," Klain said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, when asked about the transition delay, told CNN’s "State of the Union," "it would be better if we could start working with them."
"I have been through multiple transitions now, having served six presidents for 36 years, and it's very clear that the transition process that we go through, that period of time measured in several weeks to months, is really important in a smooth handing over of the information," said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "It's almost like passing a baton in a race; you don't want to stop and then give it to somebody. You want to just essentially keep going, and that is what transition is. So, it certainly would make things [go] more smoothly if we could do that."
Adm. Brett Giroix, the assistant secretary for Health and Human Services, who has been the Trump Administration’s point person on testing, when asked about the current inability to brief the Harris-Biden transition team told ABC’s "This Week": "I want to be as transparent as possible with everybody, this is not a political issue. This is an issue of public health and saving American lives, and I think there’s nothing more important than that."
Dr. Atul Gawande, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 panel, appearing shortly after Giroix on "This Week," said it is "in the nation’s interest that the transition team get the threat assessments."
Gawande said Biden’s advisers need to "understand the vaccine distribution plans, need to know where the stockpiles are, what the status is of masks and gloves. There’s a lot of information that needs to be transmitted. It can’t wait until the last minute."
Members of Biden’s transition team and the current White House virus task force alike warned that colder temperatures and indoor holiday gatherings would likely drive up infection rates further before a vaccine becomes widely available next year.
Fauci said it was possible to get the country’s infection rate to "plateau and come down" by "vigorously adhering to the public health measures," including wearing masks and social distancing.
"Everyone is sensitive to what we call COVID fatigue," Fauci said. "People are worn out about this. But we have got to hang in there a bit longer, particularly as we get into the holiday seasons and the colder weather, as we get into the late fall and early winter months."
Fauci said he expected the country would "start approaching the degree" of pre-pandemic "normality" "well into 2021," once "an overwhelming majority of people" begin getting vaccinated against the virus.
Gawande said the incoming Biden Administration would not advocate for a nationwide lockdown, noting that in New York City, officials are applying restrictions on a "ZIP code by ZIP code basis … in order to get the virus under control."
"It’s quite effective," Gawande said. "We do not need to go into a nationwide shelter-in-place shutdown."